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Top athlete relished role as model for much younger teammates

March 20, 2014


Don’t make Steve Leknois have this particular conversation with you. It might be a one-sided chat.

“He’s the best middle blocker in all of Canada, as far as I’m concerned,” said the varsity volleyball coach at Royal Military College.

“If anyone wants to argue with me on that one, as far as in the CIS? I’d love to have a good talk with them.”

Leknois was speaking proudly Wednesday night after the fellow in question, Tom McMullen, was named winner of the Tommy Smart Cup as the college’s top male athlete.

For the second year in a row, McMullen, from Kanata, ranked statistically among the top two middle blockers in Canada. But that’s not all.

“Everyone wants that one guy who speaks your team,” Leknois said. “Most people would love to have a guy like him. He’s one of the most down-to-earth people you’re ever going to meet. He’s a good old boy and a phenomenal leader.”

That would have been an unlikely scenario, based on what transpired when McMullen first strolled onto the volleyball court at RMC 11 years ago. The previous fall he’d been cut from the varsity basketball team and after a year of no sports, the following autumn he was approached in the mess by a volleyball player.

“He said, ‘Would you consider coming out for the volleyball team?’” Leknois said. McMullen confessed he’d never played before, save for a little bit in high school.

That first practice, it showed.

“The team captain said, ‘Coach, you’re not going to keep him,’” Leknois said. “He was not very good. I said, ‘Do you see anyone else who’s 6-9 in this room?’ We’re here to develop and he was only a second-year (cadet) and I said, ‘Worst case, this project doesn’t work.

“The project turned out to be one of the best players I’ve ever coached.”

High praise from a man who’s coached national teams at World Student Games.

“He’d have been on the (FISU) team in Russia last summer,” Leknois said — if not for his age.

Ah, yes. McMullen’s age.

He’s 31, about 10 years older than the next-oldest member of the team.

A communications officer — he’s an army captain — McMullen has already graduated once from RMC, in 2005. He spent much of his career at Valcartier, but seven months in Afghanistan. Posted to Kingston three years ago, he spent one intercollegiate season as Leknois’ assistant coach.

When the opportunity arose for McMullen to pursue masters studies in computer engineering, he jumped at it.

“Actually, one of the reasons I came back was to play volleyball,” McMullen said. “I’m not getting any younger.

“Coming back and doing my masters and getting that professional development is obviously part of my career in the army but at the same time playing volleyball was kind of icing on the cake. Being able to play two more years was an awesome experience.”

When McMullen broached the idea with Leknois, the decision took no time at all.

“When he was accepted for his masters, he said, ‘I want to play my last two years. I’ll have no issues; I’ll fit in; I’ll make it happen,’” Leknois said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about the age gap. I want to play. I want to finish.’

“I thought, ‘One of the best players I’ve ever coached?’ I’m not going to fight you on this one.”

True to McMullen’s word, the age difference was never an issue, even on a team that otherwise comprised seven first-year players and four second-years.

“He fit in like a big brother,” Leknois said. “They looked up to him. They cherished everything he said, and not just about volleyball. He did seven months in Afghanistan, so his experience with the CF is something he brought to the team room. He’s also been through this school. When things were tough for the cadets, he’d be the real big brother. They respected him so much.”

It’s a role McMullen says he’d never held on a team, but taking responsibility for younger teammates, and having them look up to him, was probably the best part of coming back.

“It was kind of intimidating at times but it’s nice being a role model, for sure,” he said. “I’m not used to that role but you kind have to be that guy, if you have all that experience.

“There were times this year when everybody on the court besides myself was a first-year. On the court it’s really tough for you to keep that demeanor and inspiration but that was my favourite part of the year.”

Though the team didn’t win any matches in his two years back, McMullen, bound for a posting at national defence headquarters in Ottawa, remains hopeful.

“We didn’t parlay anything into wins on the floor but the future is so bright with this team,” he said. “This has been the best team, in terms of cohesion and getting along, in my five years playing for this team.”

Something perhaps a big brother type might be instrumental in fostering?

“I like to think so,” McMullen said. “I’m the kind of guy who’s a social chameleon. I get along with everybody.”

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